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Encouraging Dialogue Rather Than Debate

My post for the start of this year was going to be much different, and then January 6th happened. I was glued to the TV watching in horror as I know so many of you were. The events on Wednesday have me reflecting on ways to allow students to have meaningful and rich conversations, especially when they can be emotionally charged.

If you were to ask me what one of the greatest evils in the world, it would be binary thinking. Far too often, we teach that there is only one right answer, and as a result, there is a wrong answer. I have been guilty of this in my own classroom. I prevented meaningful discussions by never giving my students time to consider another perspective, creating more binary thinking. I should have taught my students how our ladder of inference makes us jump to conclusions that can be clouded by our lived experiences and encourage more discussion.

As students rightfully ask questions about what happened on January 6th or any topic that can be difficult to discuss in school, we need to plan for more dialogues and less debate. I love how Lisa Schrich & David Campt define dialogue in The Little Book of Dialogue for Difficult Subjects as "a communication process that aims to build relationships between people as they share experience" (pg. 6). Conversations from a classroom setting to those at the dinner table can often feel more like a debate, where it is a contest of someone being right and someone being wrong. Dialogue is a unique communication process because it focuses on intentionally listening to learn and understand perspectives. I believe this nation is suffering from a great deal of binary thinking and is unsure how to have an authentic dialogue to break out of this type of thinking, so we often avoid difficult conversations altogether.

I believe this nation is suffering from a great deal of binary thinking and is unsure how to have an authentic dialogue to break out of this type of thinking, so we often avoid difficult conversations altogether.

To help, we need to start valuing and emphasizing dialogue over debate and allowing students to practice this form of communication no matter what we teach. It will help students in the future any time they disagree with someone else or want to discuss a difficult topic where opinions might be very different. The first step is to explain the differences between dialogue and debate. Use this handy graphic below we created from page 9 of The Little Book of Dialogue for Difficult Subjects. It is also located on our website, so click on the image to download and use it. To calibrate their understanding, have students define what this would look like, sound like, and feel like during this form of discussion.

Once students understand the differences, have a dialogue discussion to practice and norm the skill. Here are some tips below:

  • Set up some norms or community agreements so that the environment feels safe for everyone to engage in the discussion. If you already have a set of classroom norms, consider how they are utilized during the dialogue process.

  • Allow students to share experiences and their perceptions. Students need to understand that dialogue values both objective facts and personal stories in understanding an issue. Stories can create shared understanding, so have an opening question that would allow students to open up, such as "how are you coping with this issue?" To open my dialogue about January 6th with students, I might ask something along the lines of "What is your greatest concern about what happened and what makes you say that?"

  • Give students opportunities to explore similarities, but also where potential differences originate. Our ladder of inference makes us jump to the conclusion that our perspective is the "truth" and that others are "wrong." For a dialogue to be successful, the group needs to examine why experiences and perceptions are different. Project Zero's Thinking Routines are great to help students explore various perspectives.

  • Be action-oriented. Allow for students to brainstorm after hearing and listening to one another about what comes next. At times this can be not easy depending on the topic, but we all have our spheres of influence and control. Haven't we all walked away from an argument or debate realizing that nothing changed other than the fact we are now angry? By focusing on dialogue, we can move towards a collective shared goal. A question I would ask students about January 6th would be, "what can we do individually and as a community to support one another, but also prevent something like this from happening again?"

  • I am also a big advocate of Restorative Practices and found that holding conversations in a circle transformed my classroom culture. Consider having your dialogue discussions following a circle process such as this one that I got years ago from Anthony Ceja, Kristi Cole, and Paul Dedinsky of Milwaukee Public Schools.

While I shared a process around using dialogue with thoughtful planning in a classroom, I also want to note that we can use the essence of dialogue in any conversation involving two or more people. Dialogue "at its core is about respectfully listening, learning, and sharing experiences that shape our beliefs," so employ your facilitation skills at the next uncomfortable staff meeting, holiday dinner conversation, or simply hanging out with friends (Schirch, p.8). It is time we get away from binary thinking and work together toward common understanding.


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